Contador closes in on Schleck
Mende - Defending champion Alberto Contador cut into Andy Schleck's overall Tour de France lead here on Friday, as Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez celebrated his maiden race victory in the 12th stage.
Rodriguez held off the challenge of his compatriot Contador, who launched a late charge on the gruelling 3km climb towards Mende that caught his rivals cold and allowed him to cut Schleck's advantage to 31sec.
It was 31-year-old's Rodriguez first stage win in the race, in which the Katusha rider is competing for the first time.
Schleck (Saxo Bank) recovered to cross the line in fifth place alongside Belgium's Jurgen Van den Broeck, 10sec behind Contador.
Third place went to Contador's Astana team-mate Alexandre Vinokourouv, a survivor of a breakaway that started after 60km of this rolling 210.5km stage from Bourg-de-Peage.
Vinokourouv was not reeled in until the final 2km, as Contador surged past him in a bid to gain as much time on Schleck as possible.
On a stage that cut through the hilly and rugged Ardeche and Lozere regions breakaways came and went in a frantic first hour of racing.
Breakaway attempts by Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, Portuguese Alberto Rui Costa and Pierrick Fedrigo, then double-stage winner Sylvain Chavanel and his French compatriot Sandy Casar all failed early on, although it was only a matter of time before the peloton capitulated.
FDJ rider Casar broke ranks early on the Nonieres climb and despite being reeled in he got the timing right when another group broke free just before the summit at the 59km mark.
Strength in numbers soon paid dividends, with an 18-man group breaking free to quickly build a lead that the peloton struggled to close on the tight, winding descent.
The presence of Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden proved a small coup for their respective teams Astana and RadioShack, who were not obliged to contribute to an eventual chase by Schleck's Saxo Bank team.
Norwegian Thor Hushovd and Slovenian Grega Bole's successful bid to join the breakaway was no coincidence either, although their aims were not targeted at the yellow jersey.
At the first intermediate sprint at Mariac (74.5km) Bole rode hard to cross first, stopping Hushovd, the green jersey rival of his Lampre team-mate Alessandro Petacchi, taking all six points at the line.
Reigning champion Hushovd came second to take four, drawing virtually level with the Italian sprinter on 161 points.
From there, the front-runners worked in harmony although their lead was kept, for the time being, to a tight two minutes.
Saxo Bank did not pull to the front of the chasing peloton until the halfway point.
Petacchi's Lampre team began to contribute, but their efforts were in vain as Hushovd went on to beat Bole into second place at the second intermediate sprint, thus adding six points to his tally and becoming the virtual owner of the green jersey again.
Hushovd would soon be among the 14 riders in the breakaway left on their own when only Vinokourov, Vasil Kiryienka and Hesjedal were able to follow an acceleration by RadioShack's Kloden 50km from the finish.
The 14-strong chasing group, however, were determined not to let them go unhindered to the foot of the final 3km climb leading towards the finish line on the runway of Mende aerodrome.
1. Joaquin Rodriguez, Spain, Katusha, 4 hours, 58 minutes, 26 seconds.
2. Alberto Contador, Spain, Astana, same time.
3. Alexandre Vinokourov, Kazakhstan, Astana, 4 seconds behind.
4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Belgium, Omega Pharma-Lotto, :10.
5. Andy Schleck, Luxembourg, Team Saxo Bank, same time.
6. Samuel Sanchez, Spain, Euskaltel-Euskadi, same time.
7. Andreas Kloeden, Germany, Team RadioShack, same time.
8. Denis Menchov, Russia, Rabobank, same time.
9. Robert Gesink, Netherlands, Rabobank, :15.
10. Roman Kreuziger, Czech Republic, Liquigas-Doimo, same time.
11. Levi Leipheimer, United States, Team RadioShack, :17.
12. Ruben Plaza, Spain, Caisse d'Epargne, :31.
13. Damiano Cunego, Italy, Lampre-Farnesse, same time.
14. Bradley Wiggins, Britain, Sky Pro Cycling, same time.
15. Cadel Evans, Australia, BMC Racing Team, same time.
16. Ivan Basso, Italy, Liquigas-Doimo, same time.
17. Christopher Horner, United States, Team RadioShack, same time.
18. Carlos Sastre, Spain, Cervelo Test Team, same time.
19. Luis-Leon Sanchez, Spain, Caisse d'Epargne, same time.
20. Nicolas Roche, Ireland, AG2R La Mondiale, same time.
57. Lance Armstrong, United States, Team RadioShack, 3:35.
(After 12 stages)
1. Andy Schleck, Luxembourg, Team Saxo Bank, 58 hours, 42 minutes, 01 seconds.
2. Alberto Contador, Spain, Astana, 31 seconds behind.
3. Samuel Sanchez, Spain, Euskaltel-Euskadi, 2:45.
4. Denis Menchov, Russia, Rabobank, 2:58.
5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Belgium, Omega Pharma-Lotto, 3:31.
6. Levi Leipheimer, United States, Team RadioShack, 4:06.
7. Robert Gesink, Netherlands, Rabobank, 4:27.
8. Joaquin Rodriguez, Spain, Katusha, 4:58.
9. Luis-Leon Sanchez, Spain, Caisse d'Epargne, 5:02.
10. Roman Kreuziger, Czech Republic, Liquigas-Doimo, 5:16.
11. Ivan Basso, Italy, Liquigas-Doimo, 5:30.
12. Alexandre Vinokourov, Kazakhstan, Astana, 6:25.
13. Ryder Hesjedel, Canada, Garmin-Transitions, same time.
14. Nicolas Roche, Ireland, AG2R La Mondiale, 6:44.
15. Carlos Sastre, Spain, Cervelo Test Team, 7:34.
16. Bradley Wiggins, Britain, Sky Pro Cycling, 7:39.
17. Michael Rogers, Australia, Team HTC-Columbia, 7:47.
18. Cadel Evans, Australia, BMC Racing Team, 8:08.
19. Thomas Lovkvist, Sweden, Sky Pro Cycling, 8:24.
20. Andreas Kloeden, Germany, Team RadioShack, 9:05.
32. Lance Armstrong, United States, Team RadioShack, 21:16.